The bitter aftertaste of the Olympics

I really enjoyed the Olympics, I focussed on watching the amazing sport on offer and basked in the warm glow of the success of fellow Britons. However the circumstances of this success has left a bitter aftertaste as what happened wasn’t somehow really British.

TeamGB achieved success by being well-funded and organised, allowing teams of athletes to focus on analysis and incremental improvements in performance. This is great but, hang on, ‘organised’?, well-funded’?? is simply not how the British do things old boy. This support of elite sport is in the context of drastic cuts in grass roots sport, funding cut for municipal sport facilities, slashing in funding for sport in schools, selling over of playing fields for awful developments. I think most people would rather have great facilities than watching some athletes achieve success on the other side of the world. Also, it just feels like we cheated by funding athletes better than other countries.

The funding for TeamGB comes from the National Lottery. The National Lottery is essentially a tax on the poor. It provides hope of a big windfall so people can afford a house and escape poverty, but half of the money paid in goes to ‘good causes’ such as supporting elite sport. Something similar happened when The UK hosted the games in 2012, public funding in deprived areas was cut, to release money to develop facilities in London, which is the wealthiest part of the UK. This happened in Brasil too, a poor country, lumbered with paying for the games for a poor return on facilities for the city of Rio, and they couldn’t even make cheap tickets available for the locals, leading to empty stadia, much better to take the money of a few rich tourists.

Don’t get me wrong, funding of elite sportspeople isn’t wrong, they can be an inspiration for participation in sport generally and dedication to the following of dreams. However when it is the only thing that the UK does really well, it leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Then there was the media coverage, some of  which was horribly nationalistic. I watched the coverage of events on the extra channels provided by the BBC, however the main BBC1 coverage, seemed to obsess over the UK athletes, to the detriment of a comprehensive coverage of the games, also simply not British, we’re supposed to apologise for success. I do expect some focus on the home athletes, but it was a bit much. Then there was the repeated coverage of the ‘Medal Table’ documenting, which countries have the most medals. Yes, it’s nice to see that TeamGB managed to finish with the second highest medal tally, historic even. However the medal table for me is rather nationalistic for what should be a friendly games. I grew up with the medal table being a battle between the two evil giants of  the USA and CCCP. Years of drugs scandals, led the establishment of the idea that medal table success was not a proxy for a nations success, but a representation of a sinister side of nationalism. Jade Jones, the Welsh gold medallist in the Taekwondo, was rapped, for breaking protocol and running with the Welsh flag and the Union Jack, when the rule was only to carry the Union flag (which still doesn’t represent Wales). How easily the cosy togetherness of Britain can break down. I know there is no law for the official flag, but in the stadiums there seemed a lot of UK flags with a light blue background, not the proper dark blue of the Saltire. Well OK, we’re British, we’re just not very good at being united in anything.

newunionflag

Really, the Union flag hasn’t changed in two hundred years. Isn’t it about time Wales was represented properly. Adding the yellow  cross of St David to the flag can be so simple and as you can see, doesn’t have to really change the aesthetic of the flag. There is nothing stopping anyway making this flag and using it to represent the UK.

I think the issue is that Olympics is not representing the best of humanity, not simply being a vehicle for demonstrating what wonderful things human bodies are capable of. Instead, it represents what you can do with power and money taken away from ordinary people and this is just very very sad.

 

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Two months on, we are still asking “What is Brexit?”

When the newly appointed UK Prime Minister first appeared she stated that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ which begs the question: What then is Brexit?

The word was conceived to mean an exit of Britain (the UK really, but Ukxit didn’t catch on) from the European Union (EU). However it’s more complicated than that as the government have been busy running around  trying to talk to everyone and seem to be trying to find a way of remaining in the European Single Market outside of the EU proper, to have a trading relationship without a commitment to political integration. Really the governments seems to want to establish a new EEA (European Economic Area) treaty, with some restrictions on free movement and some decrease in European regulations. Essentially this is what the Tories have always wanted, a genuine two speed Europe. However, this may be difficult to achieve, at least before 2020 (when the UK has to have a general election and a new government) because getting the institutions of the EU and the other member states of the EEA will be difficult. The EU has enough problems at the moment and appears happy to let things bumble on, which really the UK seems fairly happy to do as well with no clear answer in sight, suggesting that Brexit may not happen, because the politics is difficult, the economic risks of a bad deal are perhaps a lot greater than the economic costs of doing nothing. Yet the vote happened, so ‘Brexit’ has come to mean the referendum itself, seemingly without wider implications.

A simple spectra of views of the UK in the EU can be imagined, with the hardcore Euro-sceptics, the UKIPers, the Brexitiers, at one end advocating the UK completely withdrawing from the EU and at the other end the Europhiles, the EU integrationists, with the vast majority of people somewhere in between. So with such a simple spectra asking the question ‘EU leave or not?’ was essentially, ‘Do you agree with the Brexitiers?’. The answer, by 52-48 was yes and the Brexitiers won the vote. However it would be wrong to suggest that a majority of the electorate do agree with the Brexitier position.

Wrong, because no simple spectra for views on the EU exists. Like most things really it’s more complicated, imagine the spectra spread around into a circle, or even a sphere, to consist of multiple  spectra, based on such concepts as democracy, economics, immigration and identity. As such, especially in referenda, where often a different question is answered to the actual one put. This is not to suggest that referenda are always a bad thing. The electorate has not been asked for it’s views on the EU (the last vote was 1975), so a question more like ‘Do you thing the UK should have a closer relationship or a looser relationship with the EU?’, would perhaps give a more representative result, I speculate than no-one would be surprised by a 75%+ vote for ‘less EU’ and I would not have been troubled by my choice at all.  Though such a vote would again not produce by itself a clear UK EU strategy, but it would be more indicative of what people actually want.

It’s not a simple spectra as the Brexitier camp is itself very divided. One group are the hardcore market fundamentalists (more capital), wanting lower regulations, lower productivity, lower tax and low wages. opposed to the Social Democrats (more democracy, more labour), wanting higher regulations, higher wages, higher taxes and higher productivity. Either system could work, but a complete withdrawal from the EU, would lead to a fight between these Brexit groups, where no compromise was possible that wouldn’t lead to a much weaker economy than exists now and for these systems to work there would need to be a majority consensus for them to actually work. In any case our FPTP electoral system, favouring two major left-right aligned blocs, would fail to allow such a fundamental shift in the economy either way, because international trade and relations are important in the inter-dependent world the UK exists in, doing things substantially differently to the rest of the world would be challenging. Well, the UK could be truly isolationist, but this would entail lots of things like everyone becoming vegan, giving up personal transport and completely changing our lifestyles, although off-grid lifestyle choices are growing in popularity.

However, the Brexit wasn’t really about the EU at all, I have argued that it was simple a protest vote against the political establishment. The establishment and democracy has failed in the UK. A two party system works, when the parties in control are regularly swapped to maintain a balance and elected representatives are free to ignore party dictats (the whipped vote). A balance should be created that prevents leading towards extreme ideologies, that don’t work very well for the majority.

Essentially we can view economies as interactions between three hostile powers, Labour, Capital and the State. So traditionally, the Conservative party advocate more Capital, while the Labour party advocate more power for Labour, but both parties want the State (themselves when they are in power) to work in different ways.

The problem is that the balance of power broke down in the mid 1980s. In the 1970s, Labour and the Trade Unions were too powerful, choking the UK economy. Democracy triumphed in 1979, when the Conservatives won and set about reducing Labour and increasing Capital. However by around 1985, they had gone to far in supporting capital, but the Tories won the 1987 election? and again in 1992??, Democracy had failed, or at least the Labour party had failed. In a two party system, both parties need to be strong for democracy to work. The UK now really does need a strong Socialist, just to bring some balance back, but the Labour party are currently split over this. Well sadly Labour didn’t have many Socialists left in the parliamentary party to choose from, which is the problem they are making a fuss about at the moment.

Globalisation has compounded this problem, rather than been a panacea of free and fair trade. Market fundamentalist governments appear across the globe, trade agreements lock in the power of Capital at the expense of the State. We are now in a world where correction is harder and harder to achieve. Harder in a world where the advocates of capital control the main stream media, denying the wider electorate the chance to be informed and thus able to vote for balance, political debate is now framed solely by the effect on capital. We live in a world of no real economic growth as the drivers of the economy, the working and middle class, and the state itself are heavily in debt to capital, there is no money to fund growth, to support new innovative enterprise. Capital has no means of giving money to Labour or the State because that is not it’s job, it’s the job of Labour and the State to do that!

Essentially, everyone has the idea that something is very wrong with the world economy, but this opposition to the market fundamentalist establishment (the neo-liberals) is divided. In the US, Trump is a phenomena, riding this tide of discontent, in spite of him being a really offensive individual and a class A idiot, it’s like the people are screaming ‘Any change at all, we can’t carry on like this’, as the UK did with Brexit.

So, how does all relate the the EU? The EU itself is perceived both as a strong armer for Capital, and as a strong armer for  regulation (but at an EU (inter-state) and not state level). It’s perceived as being unable to do anything well for 28 diverse states. So objections to it are valid whether you are a market fundamentalist or not.

So, a hard Brexit won’t work, but neither will an EEA fudge. It seems that the best strategy is simply remain in the EU, but veto pretty much everything, including trade deals such as CETA and TTIP, effectively having an EEA trade treaty, by the back door. However aren’t trade treaties perhaps the problem, as they reduce the power of the State and Labour and give to Capital? What we need is social democracy back, that can tame capital (and tame Labour and the State when needs be), rather than anything that increases the power of capital.

Perhaps the issue is mobility. States don’t move very much, if at all in modern times. People (Labour) can move, but is restricted and usually involved making a commitment to living, working and contributing to life in a new country. Capital is fairly unrestricted in it’s mobility, hence it can exploit States and Labour, by moving away from when times get harder. So, perhaps the next step forward to achieving economic balance is to restrict movement of capital. Capital will then have to make the same commitments to states, to it’s workforce as others in the trinity. Capital will then have to  invest long-term, it’s monetary gains will then largely remain in a state and contribute back to local Labour. The question is whether to do this at an EU level, a UK level or a devolved level. Again I would argue for devolving this power, to restrict inward investment that it not committed to a a community, so it becomes part of that community. The Uk has been poor at ensuring a one-nation where prosperous regions give a helping hand to less prosperous areas to bring them up to speed. As the market demands change and technology develops, capital can switch industry, but remain geographically fixed to a locality. Is this what Brexit is, taking back control of capital to local communities, giving control to democracy, rather than centralised states or corporations.Is this how humanity will tackle growing inequality and the threats of climate change?

 

 

 

The Olympic Games, #TeamGB and women on the telly

The Olympic Games is on in Rio, they are a wonderful televisual feast of sport. I thought I would document some of the reasons I like them.

TeamGB

Having a Great Britain [and Northern Ireland, so really it’s team UK?] team in itself is odd. For almost every sport, there are separate teams for the nations of Wales, Scotland and England. So the Olympics is even more different to sport as usual for people of the British Isles. Some people don’t like this, one reason is because it can mean the highest ranked sports people in a country may miss out on an Olympic spot as the British Olympic committee only funds so many athletes for each sport and this creates frictions between the sporting bodies, even though I think it’s generally done reasonably fairly. For example in one of the Judo classes, there was a real battle between a Welsh lady and and an English lady for the spot and by a narrow point margin the Welsh lady got the opportunity. A second reason is that there is an intense sporting rivalry between the nations of the UK, so team GB, in say the Rugby 7s, is made up of players from all UK nations, but often mainly drawn from the English team. This was really really odd, because the rugby rivalry is so intense, it just seems wrong to put this aside for the Olympics, I did but there has to be representation from all countries for this to work, which doesn’t necessarily produce the best team.   The team is usually the English team with the odd Scot or Welsh person, who will not be used to playing together and may be used to playing in a different style. The Rugby 7s was particularly odd this time, making it’s debut as an Olympic event.

Generally, I don’t like major, well covered sports being at the Olympics, as they get enough coverage and exposure in the media anyway. the Rugby 7s was hugely enjoyable, The ladies final was a hugely high standard and hugely dramatic and in the gentlemans final, my support for Team GB actually only lasted about 2 minutes, as Fiji were just immense and sometimes you just have to stop and applaud such a display of skill.

However for other sports, it’s simply nice to be able to come together to support fellow British and Irish athletes, to forget for two weeks the politics and rivalries within the UK, to enjoy the sport. Major sports like Golf and Football, I don’t approve of Olympic inclusion, because, they are well supported anyway and I regard the Olympics as a vehicle for the promotion of sports that struggle to become a regular part of mass entertainment.

The sheer niceness of it being Team GB, rather than Team Wales, presents three levels of support. Nonetheless, in each competition, I end up supporting someone. I support Welsh athletes first and foremost then the rest of Team GB, but also competitors from all over the world. I just like the sense of the world coming together to appreciate top level sporting competition and the sense that as supporters we are also part of the team, freed from national affiliation, you can enjoy the sport without nationalistic fervour pulling the heartstrings. I don’t know if this is the same for people from other countries that don’t compete under the banner of a union state. Really it’s simply good to see the Union Jack being waved for a positive unifying reason for a change.

The Sport

It’s great to see sports you have interest in, that you wish were higher up the media agenda some involvement in and the top athletes getting world-wide exposure. It is also super to see other sports getting the exposure too, even if I can’t move beyond finding Dressage rather silly. The Olympics is really good for these sports, encouraging new participation and inspiring people with what dedicated humans can achieve.

There is something special about the broadcasting element of having experts in a sport on the telly explaining what is going on to a largely ignorant public. You can watch sports you take zero interest in for four years. what broadcasters do if is give some back story to the events and the individual competitors, so even if you don’t know the sport, you can get involved in witnessing the emotional journeys.

Women

Generally, I am so pleased that both gentlemen and ladies compete  with equal billing for a change. Womens sport generally plays second fiddle to the men, but there is no real justification for this. Yes, elite men can run faster, jump higher pull harder, throw things further and lift heavier things, but that isn’t really very interesting. There is just as much skill, tactics and drama in sports of both genders and fortunately the broadcasters largely respect this, if only for the Olympics, if only it would happen all the time. It is sad that sometimes, some male broadcasters don’t reveal that they haven’t quite got the equality idea.

Being a heterosexual chap, I actually, much prefer the womens events at the Olympics. So, really, whatever gender you are attracted to you can get behind athletes you are attracted to. The female preference, primarily simple because there are so many really pretty women and I just like athletic competitive women, but also that women suffer a lot less from this ‘don’t show your emotions’ nonsense, that is drilled into us men as children, so as a spectacle, the women show much more how they feel about their performances. Yes, I want the attractive women to do well and feel with them, but it doesn’t stop me appreciating the skill demonstrated.

I know I do find generally seem to find different women attractive to most men. It’s so refreshing for all sorts of women to gain exposure for showing off their skills in the same way as the men. Though it does make me feel frustration that in many other fields it is only ladies who are perceived as attractive by the masses who seem to get to be in the media. We still live in a world where talented television presenters disappear after they reach a certain age, which doesn’t happen to male presenters. Really I just like the message getting out there that you don’t have to be thin, have huge breasts to get exposure.

My first day on the Maes

Having spent six months or so learning to speak Welsh, I was keen to go to this years National Eisteddfod. The Eisteddfod is essentially a celebration of the Welsh language and culture. It’s primary purpose is for artists to perform in competition in front of a panel of judges. In many ways it is much like any other outdoor festival, there are various stages and venues hosting a wide variety of events: music, literature and Welsh culture. So, the usual lots of fun in a muddy field, portable toilets, food and drink stalls and other commercial stands promoting their wares.

It was an amazing day out and is just very Welsh. Welsh celebrities are everywhere and are approachable and happy to talk to people. Indeed the main point of the festival, like any other festival is to chat to people and enjoy yourself. Having learnt just about enough Welsh to be able to converse in Welsh, it was even more fun to be part of this language theme park.

I enjoyed a political discussion, listened to a storyteller, listened to bands perform, bumped into so many people I know and seen more harps in a day than I have ever seen in my life and went to a harp playing competition. As the Welsh language predominates, Welsh speakers are a culture of around 500,000 people + learners, so has a vibe of inclusivity and friendliness that I haven’t experienced at any other festival, you just feel welcomed by the huge ‘Croeso’ [Welcome] in large red friendly letters. I love the harp, I think it’s an astounding musical instrument and the performer who won the competition I sat through was simply overflowing with talent and musicality.

Anyway, I’ll keep this blog entry short, as I’m going back again tomorrow to meet up with a group of fellow Welsh learners. I’m on a positive vibe, away from the all the politics and Brexit nonsense for a change!

British Identity Roots

There seems to have been a major shift in how people define themselves. in recent times we have heard some people see Scottish independence as a threat to their identity and the recent Brexit vote as a threat to people’s European identity. I had thought the idea of associating identity with a state, rather than with people was bizarre. When I read in the news that ‘The British have decided…’, I cringe as it is not the British people but the British state that has decided something. However if people do associate themselves with states, then they are allowing states to effect their identity, which is surely strange, though this is how I believe it once was. There does seem to have been a shift in focus from some people post-Brexit. If identity is grounded in the machinations of the state, then essentially people are rootless and subject to political whims. Really, our sense of identity should not be political, but perhaps inevitably it is. It seems that how we root ourselves as people has changed.

Roots are important, they help provide security for us as individuals, they allow us to recognise what defines us as people and how we are different to that norm, to know who we are. Discovering our roots is essentially realising who we are, the roots were there but we were not aware of them. We particularly notice our roots when we are uprooted to somewhere else, the roots effectively become exposed. An actual examination of roots is something fairly new for many people.

Traditionally, people were rooted to the land, with one big carrot like root, placing someone firmly in a locality and a community. Thus this community defined who they were, how they thought, how they viewed the world. It is only in the last couple of generations that we have moved away from this model. Genetically, the vast majority of people in an area were descended from countless generations before them, when people settle, they don’t move around much, living in that same area. When people travelled and met new people, two questions were often asked: 1/ What do you do for a living? 2/ Where are you from?

The answers to these two questions used to reveal a lot, if not almost everything about a person. For recent generations, these two questions are less revealing, because we are increasingly not defined by our work and are less geographically rooted. Instead of that big fat carrot root, we have multiple, thinner roots that range far and wide. Instead of defining ourselves from our localities and local communities, we root in much bigger networks. This then impacts on local communities as then those living in that community, rooting more traditionally, find many people around them with different roots. so, we can perhaps explain the rise in xenophobia as the expression of fear about roots. Living in a community with people who are rooted in different ways is perhaps perceived as disturbing.

For example a homosexual, growing up in a community with few fellow homosexuals, may find it difficult to root their sexuality, so they will look further afield to root themselves in a wider community and may decide to move to a city where there are more homosexuals. In Wales, such a phenomena has occurred more widely.

I grew up in a rural area and my generation were told and strongly encouraged to move away to go to university or develop a career and then come back to raise a family as there were few employment opportunities in the area. This has happened for communities across Wales. The sense of Welshness is such that the ‘hiraeth’ or pull back to home when you are able is strong. However this does leave communities with low proportions of people in their 20s, denying communities of people with the time and energy to contribute and build things for that community, that is much harder for people to do once they have children to support. I have witnessed this is my own community, there are even less opportunities now than when I was young. However, I have friends from similar areas in Northern England and they have no such desire to return home to economically deprived communities, yet they retain the identity and define themselves as proud Yorkshirefolk or Scousers. The thing is that people continue to root themselves into their 20s, so quite wide ranging roots are formed, often based on your preferences, you find communities of people based on those preferences.

I think because rooting is based on preferences, there is a perception of choice involved. for example that the homosexual I mentioned earlier has ‘chosen’ to be homosexual, rather than simply realised that they always were homosexual.

What is interesting is that the Brexit vote was strongest in deprived communities, left behind communities, communities that haven’t had to develop wide ranging roots adn those communities that have lost their young people; these areas  defined the vote. Whereas the cosmopolitan, wider rooted younger communities of the cities were strongest for the European Union, for the Union of Europe was perceived to have just at least as many problems as the Union of the UK. The advocates of Brexit did not focus on the economic arguments, but on immigration instead, with winning the vote, they celebrated by waving the Union flag. This suggests that the vote was all about identity and not economics. We have a UK Prime Minister including in her first speech a stress upon the importance of the Union [of the United Kingdom].

So, what is the Union, beyond the political union holding together the nations of the UK? The answer is perhaps Britishness, a sense of identity and belonging to the nations of Britain. However the social union of Britain has been in decline for decades. The world wars of the last century, the end of the British Empire period, forged a new one nation Britain, with a new sense of identity and a strong sense of unity, of everyone pulling together to re-build the state after the wars. The new economic policies  of Thatcher and Reagan and an ongoing ‘neoliberal’ consensus of rampant individualism, begun in the 1980s tore apart the sense of a British community. Areas, such as Wales, Scotland and Northern England were sacrificed to fuel a burgeoning Southern England, it was like the family had been abandoned to buy a flashy new car. The sense of the family of Britain, was broken. The sense of Britishness has declined and the notion of Englishness was perhaps newly born (arguably Englishness was entirely entwined with the idea of Britishness). It is perhaps painful for older people to have woken up recently to discover that part of their identity has gone and they perhaps perceive ‘winning’ the Brexit vote as a chance for a return to Britishness. This aspiration seems doomed to fail, as the party in control of the UK and it’s new ideology, is the very one that has ripped the Union apart for all their fine words.

This whole sense of defining yourself, of rooting yourself in a nation, just seems like an idea of the past now. I am of course a proud Welshman, but that is only a part of my identity. I feel rooted, I don’t have a sense of wondering who I am. It is perhaps being an outsider, of being a Welshman living and moving frequently in England in my 20s, allowed me the opportunity to define myself widely, to root myself well, while not becoming a full member of those communities, those areas have also become part of my identity. However, there may be people who feel mainstream, who haven’t travelled widely, for whom this change in how we root ourselves may be much harder to achieve.